OPINION15 February 2010

Interesting times


What are the key trends shaping our lives and businesses in 2010? Scary, that’s what.

There was an odd atmosphere last Friday morning as a group of about 50 people invited by Hall & Partners gathered for breakfast in a private room at London’s exclusive Ivy restaurant.

As we sat quietly trying not to let our spoons clink too loudly against our fruit salad bowls, a panel of speakers at the front of the room spoke of the danger, uncertainty and austerity that lies ahead for us.

The event was billed as a discussion on the key forces shaping our lives and businesses in 2010 and beyond, which, as it turns out, is a pretty frightening topic.

The Economist’s Tom Standage kicked things off by holding up the current issue of his magazine, the cover of which shows a man making his way gingerly across a rickety rope bridge, with the headline ‘New dangers for the world economy’.

The economic shock may be over, but the long recovery lies ahead. “The best scenario,” said Standage as the audience tucked into their cinnamon whirls, “is that we have years of horrible austerity”.

More coffee anyone?

Tamar Kasriel of trend tracking consultancy Futureal suggested that the nonchalant atmosphere in the room might reflect a wider trend. “We’ve got used to the discourse of apocalypse,” she said. “Think about some of the headlines a year ago – and we’re still going out and having nice breakfasts.”

So how are people changing amid the economic turmoil? John Owen of digital marketing agency Dare said the internet and social media have actually accelerated a trend toward individualism. People’s enthusiasm for ‘supporting a cause’ on Facebook with a single click (and then forgetting about it) would seem to be the exception that proves the rule.

On a more optimistic note, the economic crisis has pushed people to seek personal fulfilment through avenues other than the accumulation of stuff. There’s a growing focus on spirituality and personal happiness.

To cover this side of things, the business and marketing commentators on the panel ceded the floor to psychic and astrologist Rosa Derriviere. After having to be put right by Standage on the date that Uranus was discovered (for the record it’s 1781, not 1930 – that was Pluto), Derriviere went on to say some very sensible things about the renewed focus on spirituality. “During these difficult times we have to look within,” she said. “It’s always been there – there’s nothing ‘new age’ about any of this. People go back to their values when times get rough.”

This trend towards the spiritual can seem strange when viewed through the prism of new technology. Standage cited the movie Avatar as an example of a high tech phenomenon urging a return to nature and spirituality. “My wife has meditation apps on her iPhone,” he said.

So what does all this mean for brands and marketing? First of all, what consumers look for in brands is changing. In the same way that people are taking refuge in spirituality, they are also looking to brands to offer something reliable and steadfast amid the chaos.

John Owen said marketing practitioners also need to respond more quickly to changes in behaviour brought on by the rise of social media. Although debate continues as to whether social media should belong to the marketing department, the research department, the IT department, or all of the above, it definitely needs to be handled by somebody.

“Marketing is a more labour intensive effort now,” said Owen. “Marketing directors are asking the wrong questions – they’re asking for more media budget. What they should be asking for is five more people. Advertising doesn’t work as well as it did, and never will, but we’ve all been slow to change because it’s tricky and painful to change. But now we have to.”